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Saint Willibrord

St. Willibrord of Northumbria, Apostle to Friesland, Bishop

Born in Northumbria, Britain, 658; died in Echternach, Luxembourg, 739. His name indicates that he is of Saxon lineage (‘Willi’ is a great god of Norse mythology; ‘brord’ indicates ‘under the protection of’).

Willibrord, first Archbishop of Utrecht, is one of the missionaries sent out by the Anglo-Saxon Christians about a century after they had themselves been Christianized by missionaries in the south and east of England from Rome and the Continent, and in the north and west from the Celtic peoples of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.

Our information about Willibrord comes to us from the Venerable Bede (History of the English Church and People, v. 10-11) and from a biography by his younger kinsman Alcuin, Minister of Education under the Emperor Charlemagne. Willibrord was born in Northumbria in England about 658, and studied in France and Ireland.

Although their family name was clearly pagan, his parents were Christians. Willibrord’s father was such a devout Christian that, at his own expense, he founded a little monastery near the sea and went to live there.

Like many children of the period, seven-year-old Willibrord was sent to another monastery at Ripon to be educated under Saint Wilfrid. (The Rule of St. Benedict speaks of oblates offered to the monastery by their parents. Willibrord’s mother probably either died or took the veil.)

At that time monks liberally interpreted their vow of attaching themselves to a single community, and many of them went to complete their education in Ireland, which was famous for its scholarship. For 12 years Willibrord studied at Rathmelsigi under Saints Egbert and Wigbert, and was ordained a priest there in 688.

At Rathmelsigi Willibrord’s real story begins for Egbert had a pet scheme that he shared with many of his monks. He planned to send missionaries to the continent, and especially to the pagan Germans of Frisia. It was an excellent opportunity to win a whole people for God, and also to win the crown of martyrdom. Willibrord, age 32, was chosen by Egbert to lead 11 other English monks across the North Sea to Frisia.

Willibrord is described as shorter than average and cheerful. He possessed a quick tongue, a good education, an appetite for adventure, and a sense of humour–not to forget: faith, hope, and charity.

In the autumn of 690, the 12 arrived at Katwijk-aan-Zee, at one of the mouths of the Rhein. From there they followed the river to Wij-bij Duurstede (Holland) and sought out Pepin II of Herstal, mayor of the palace of Clovis II, king of the Franks. Pepin of Herstal had just wrested Lower Friesland from the pagan leader Duke Radbod, considered a savage bear who ruled as a tyrant over acres of sandy mud and who poisoned his enemies.

As soon as he had seen Pepin and received his support for the conversion of the Frisians, he went to Rome to seek advice from Pope Saint Sergius I and receive his orders for the mission. Before his departure he was consecrated for the work by the pope.

On his second Roman visit in 695, Willibrord convinced Pope Sergius II that the young mission needed a prelate who was independent both of York and of Pepin II; and Sergius, for his part, realised that the only person capable of filling this office, which needed tact as well as energy, was Willibrord.

And so he was consecrated as archbishop November 22–Saint Cecelia’s feast in St. Cecelia’s Church. Perhaps because his Sicilian tongue couldn’t pronounce ‘Willibrord,’ Sergius insisted on changing the saint’s name to ‘Clement,’ a choice that may have been influenced by the Englishman’s phlegmatic mildness. Sergius then sent him back to his flock with some relics and the title archbishop of the Frisians.

On his return to the northern mists, Clement-Willibrord, who rarely used his Latin name, created his see at Utrecht. Thus, he inaugurated the English colony in continental Europe that was to be so potent a religious influence for 100 years.

Unlike modern bishoprics full of administrators and equipment, Willibrord’s archbishopric was a living heart. He was constantly on the road, like his missionary monks, preaching from village to village. Gradually he established each little hamlet as a parish with its own priest and liturgies illuminated by the Benedictine spirit. Willibrord and Saint Boniface of Crediton together were responsible for instituting chorepiscopi, ‘country bishops,’ in western Europe to help them in their work.

Willibrord was well-equipped to deal with powerful people who possessed the land, money, and power needed to support his work. He made use of the great, made them servants of the Gospel, but was never subservient or over-ready to give his blessing to their follies. From them he obtained the vast tracks of land that he turned into villages and parishes, like Alphen in north Brabant. With their money he established monasteries that served as centres of intellectual and religious enlightenment.

Willibrord apparently was antithetical to the work of the Culdees whom he encountered.

About 700 he established a second important missionary centre at Echternach, on the banks of the Sure in today’s junction between Luxembourg and Germany. He continued to evangelize especially in the northern area of the present-day Benelux countries, though it does appear that he explored Denmark and perhaps Thuringia (Upper Friesland), too. Once he barely escaped a mission with his life– he was attacked by a pagan priest at Walcheren for destroying an idol.

In 714 Willibrord baptized Charles Martel’s son Pepin the Short.

During the period 715-19, Willibrord’s experienced a set-back during Frisian uprising against Franks. On the death of Pepin II on December 116, 714, Duke Radbod, who had submitted to him but had never converted, invaded the territories he had lost to Pepin of Herstal. He massacred, pillaged, burned, and stole everything that he could find that bore the Christian mark.

But as soon as the quarrel about succession within Pepin’s family had been settled by the skill of Charlemagne, Radbod and his Neustrian allies were defeated by Charlemagne and his Austrasians in the forest of Compiegne on September 26, 715. There were other uprisings until Radbod’s death in 719, but Willibrord and his missionaries were able to repair the damage and renew their work. About 719, Boniface joined them and worked with them in Friesland for three years before proceeding to Germany.

Willibrord’s missionary achievement was not spectacular–the rapidity and number of conversions was exaggerated by later writers–but it was a solid laying of foundations; ‘his charity was manifest in his daily unremitting labour for Christ’s sake’ (Alcuin). He is known as the Apostle of the Frisians.

He died while on a retreat at Echternach on November 7, 739. His frail body was placed in a stone sarcophagus, which may still be seen there.

Early in the eighth century a monk of Echternach wrote out a calendar of saints, many of whom were connected with the scenes of Willibrord’s life. The Calendar of Saint Willibrord is now in the National Library in Paris (Latin manuscript #10.837), and it is of great interest to students of hagiography; under the date 21 November 728 (Folio 39) are several autobiographical lines written by Willibrord himself giving the dates of going to France and being ordained a bishop (Attwater, Delaney, Encyclopaedia, Grieve, Verbist).

In art, St. Willibrord’s emblem is a barrel on which he rests his cross. The Abbey of Echternach is behind him and he is vested in episcopal attire. At times the following variations are observed: (1) in bishop’s vestments, he rests his cross on a well, with a barrel, four flagons, and the abbey behind him; (2) bishop carrying a child, or with a child nearby; (3) bishop with Utrecht Cathedral behind him; or (4) as a monk with a ship and a tree.

Invoked against convulsions and epilepsy (Roeder).

Medieval Sourcebook:
The Life of Willibrord, c.796
by Alucin (735-804)

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